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When I moved to Northern California in 1990, everything was shiny and new. A year later, in a new apartment, I asked the landlord if I could turn the unused cement bed next to our driveway into a garden. He said yes, and I was off to the races.
I filled it with drought-resistant plants that would accommodate Berkeley’s semi-arid climate: two kinds of lavender (English and French!) and lobelias. A cute landscape gardener/neighbor with long blonde hair and a drinking problem helped me choose the plant life and we gave them cute names like Lanny Lantana (a yellow and red flowering shrub) and Lolly Lobelia.
One early Sunday morning when I was watering the garden, a hummingbird flew right into the spray, creating a naturally radiant waterfall. Man, for a boy from the suburbs of New York, that was really freaking far out. A miracle in the days when it was easy to believe in them.
Eventually my idea of drought-tolerant turned into benign neglect, and the garden faltered. A man named Mark, a friend of the landlord’s family, moved in and gave it more water. But Mark had AIDS and died a year or two later.
Enter George Luna.
Luna was a former jockey who still trained racehorses at Golden Gate Fields race track and he ran a tack shop (all the leather goods horses require, like saddles, etc.) next door to us. When Mark died, George moved in, and among his myriad of dawn-to-dusk activities was bringing that garden to life. Boy, did he ever.
George and I became friends and shared many a conversation over his driveway barbecues. He was a worldly man who loved to learn and was always talking about new ideas or trips, including sailing boats up and down the California coastline and as far as Hawaii. He was the renaissance man, and though of small stature, in constant motion. Like a hummingbird.
Two weeks ago, I got the news – as one often does these days, via email – of George’s sudden passing. He died of food poisoning in his native Mexico. I broke down and cried on my chair while reading the e-mail. I had been in frequent contact with him over the past year, reading his semiautobiographical stories of a jockey on the B-level tracks in Canada and the western U.S. Like George, the stories were funny, no-holds-barred honest and touching. Hearing that he died was like a punch to the solar plexus; it took me an hour to get myself together.
We had been planting a proximation of a garden out on our porch in New York because we don’t have a formal yard, so it’s planter boxes for us. We also went to the local Portuguese grocer, a rough-hewn character from the old country named John, who cajoled us into buying a few plants. I picked ones with a familiar red and yellow flower. I looked at the label when we got home and discovered, three decades later, that I’d picked out my old pal Lanny Lantana again. What a trip.
I poured some potting soil into the rectangular, plastic planter boxes and broke up the roots of the flowers we’d chosen from John. I arranged them in a favorable color scheme and set the box down. Not a moment later, a hummingbird flew up to inspect the riot of colors. It then zoomed off, so quickly that it seemed a mirage.
Now, we have this belief system in my family that one’s soul becomes a bird when we give up our human bodies. It’s as valid a credo as any. My niece Elizabeth, we’re certain, lives on in the American robin, so we all salute these birds whenever we see them. My mom June chose a stately female cardinal to inhabit in her next life. They are classy, beautiful creatures, as was my mother.
So I’m certain that the ruby-throated hummingbird, which passed through our porch/garden was George, saying hello in his high-speed, energetic way, and letting me know he was OK. I know it like I know my own soul.
Gracias, amigo, que te vaya bien.
I put a sign on the garden yesterday that said “George Luna Garden,” with images of the Mexican and U.S. flags and a silhouette of a jockey. I’m sure George doesn’t need the sign to find his way back, but it makes me feel better.
Note: You can plant a hummingbird and butterfly-friendly garden, too. For more information, visit https://www.audubon.org/news/10-plants-bird-friendly-yard.
Ossining resident Brian Kluepfel is a member of Saw Mill River Audubon and encourages you to support their activities (see ad below). He also writes for the Lonely Planet travel series, Westchester Magazine, and Birdwatching Daily. His next venture will be to St. John’s, Newfoundland.
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